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Why Are Some Kids Killers? - By Chris Gearing

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Watch Dr. Sylvia Gearing discuss why some children kill on CBS 11 - click here.

What would drive an adolescent to kill someone?

Emotions are Contagious: In the heat of the moment a group of kids can turn into a vicious mob with little provocation. The negative influence of the group can override the good common sense of even a good child. In some cases, such as in this crime, the actions turn deadly very quickly.

Developing Brain: The adolescent brain is still developing and as a result, it is highly vulnerable to the influences of the crowd. The emotional centers of the brain are not fully connected to the logical analytical parts of our brain that tells us to “turn back” or “get out of there.” Instead, the emotional centers begin to fire, the bullying behavior begins, and the anger and taunting become contagious. The crowd of kids literally feeds off of the fear of the victim and things spiral out of control.

How common is this kind of crime?

We do know that teens tend to kill other teens. Here are the numbers:

Boys between the ages of twelve to nineteen commit one third of violent crimes.

Homicides are the second leading cause of death of this same age group.

Young males are FOUR TIMES more likely to be murdered than are females.

Eighty five percent of murdered teens are male and most were involved in some sort of physical fight that led to murder.

Are adolescent males more prone to this type of violence?

Anger is an Approved Emotion: Absolutely they are since anger is a socially approved emotion for young boys. You can’t be sad but you can be angry. Anger is also energizing. Anger feels empowering and it protects them momentarily from the shame and self-loathing so many of them experience. Group violence has become a ritualized outlet for boys to express their frustration.

Group Bullying Behavior is Rampant: This event that resulted in the death of a child is currently in the news, but bullying happens everyday to millions of children. Bullying behavior is almost always a group activity and it is rampant among males.

Violence is Normalized: In a group of adolescents, boys are normalizing and even glorifying the physical violence they exert against one another. They think that by pitting themselves against an adversary, they demonstrate their machismo, defend their honor, and show how tough they really are. It is a futile attempt to connect with each other and to give them an illusion of being tough, invincible and undefeatable.

What happens over time when a child engages in this kind of group bullying behavior?

Blood Sport: They become increasingly more violent because they become desensitized to violence and it becomes a sport. They have to “up the ante” to get the same thrill. Getting away with it this time means that you may get away with it next time. The violence tends to escalate to bond the group, provide a larger thrill, and display the power and domination of the bully.

Viral Violence: Violence is symptomatic of the basic problem American boys and men are experiencing. From early childhood, they are socialized to express themselves primarily through their actions and achievements instead of careful introspection and verbal expression.

Lack of Emotional Intelligence: Over time, many boys fail to develop the age appropriate emotional intelligence necessary to manage themselves effectively. They can’t communicate, they can’t recover from failure, and they sink into a scrambled, childlike view of the world on a dime. They become disconnected from what they feel and use a limited number of emotions to navigate their relationships and to make their decisions. This doesn’t just impact their friends in high school, but also future employment, family relationships, and basic beliefs about the world.

What are the warning signs if parents are concerned about their child?

Homicides are highly predictable if we pay attention to what we are observing. Learning to predict violence is the first step to preventing violence.

Here are the warning signs in teens:

  • Lack of Conscience
  • Angry Outbursts
  • Tendency to follow others no matter what
  • History of Oppositional Behaviors
  • Actual Threats—written or spoken
  • Past Acts of violence
  • Access to Weapons
  • Past Suicide Attempts
  • Family History of Violence or Bullying
  • Cruelty to animals

What pushes a teen over the edge into homicide?

A person arrives at a tipping point and decides to act violently when four conditions are met:

  • They feel justified
  • They perceive few or no alternatives
  • They believe that the consequences will be minimal
  • They believe that they have the ability to get away with it

What should parents know if they are worried about their children?

The worst mistake parents make is to ignore what they are seeing right in front of them. Intuition is the warning system built into our brains to allow us to predict violence and to avoid it.

Here are normal signals from your intuition:

  • Nagging Feelings and Persistent Thoughts
  • Black Humor—Jokes such as “He’s just going to shoot us all!”
  • Hunches and Gut Feelings
  • Hesitation and Suspicion
  • Uncontrollable Fear

Many adults prefer to view violence as a normal “rite of passage” through childhood. Nothing could be further from the truth. Please educate yourself about child violence and train yourself to recognize it when you see it.


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